Allison Gornik is a Michigan State psychology PhD candidate who studies kids and families. But back when she was an undergrad at a tiny public school in Florida, she became immersed in a highly intensive DIY curriculum of race science. That's because she found herself talking to Derek Black, an extreme right-wing radio host who was born and bred by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizards to be the heir of white nationalism and bring it into the mainstream.
When her Orthodox Jewish roommate first started inviting Black to weekly Shabbat dinners, Gornik would hide in her room. Then she started to engage with the famous racist little by little. The two ended up becoming unlikely friends, and eventually partners. All the while, she slowly but surely moved to challenge his beliefs in part by using studies she'd learned about in a class called Stigma and Prejudice. Eventually, though, she felt like she was taking a crash course in the specious arguments used to support white nationalism—and how science could dismantle them.
"At least half was extracurricular reading," she told me. "This was an interesting little side project."
Gornik and Black are the main characters in a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eli Saslow called Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. In reading it, I was struck by what seemed like a remarkable accomplishment, at least from the perspective of American politics in 2018: convincing someone to completely change their racist viewpoint by way of rational debate. That achievement seemed even more compelling given that the person Gornik transformed had lived his whole life through the prism of professional, organized racism, rather than doing normal young-person things and more quietly harboring noxious beliefs. I chatted with the budding psychologist about how she managed to do this and what arguments seemed most effective in challenging hate.
VICE: I think a lot of people know intuitively that white nationalism is a very flawed ideology but aren't armed with the knowledge to actually be able to argue why. Why do you think that gap exists?
Allison Gornik: Part of that has to do with the inaccessibility of science. I think most primary sources around these sorts of things are behind paywalls, which is how this science works. And so reading whichever interpretation of science is all most people have to go on. They can't go and consult what scientists actually say in their articles. And most people also don't have the training to decide if their interpretation of statistics is reasonable, or if the sample they used is reasonable. I think some of that is changing, so if people use Google Scholar, they aggregate articles that authors can post themselves. ResearchGate is also really helpful, because you can link to your articles that you retain some ownership over.
Right, and most of the people arguing the other side of this don't know anything either. So what are people even talking about when they usually have these discussions?
What you can do is go with who you believe in. So if you believe Jared Taylor or Philippe Rushton, they have interpretations of articles they've read or written, but you don't have the training or access to read them. It's like people who don't believe in vaccines: They typically don't go and look up what articles say about vaccines. So a lot of it with Derek was asking him, "Why is this what you believe?" Because I didn't have a background in racial science, and I didn't know how to make these arguments either.
Before we chatted, you sent me a rough outline of four main white-nationalist talking points you had to deconstruct for Black: racial differences in IQ, racial disparities in crime, the myth that America is a place of equal opportunity, and the concept of white genocide. Which one did you attack first and how?
I mean, it was really a back-and-forth. It was, "Why is this what you believe?" and then it was, "What is that based on?" and then it was, "How credible is that?" and then, "Have you looked at the counterarguments, and how credible are those?" So there was almost an aspect of us doing this together, because I had never read the articles either. Not quite a collaboration. But it was him sending me something by Philippe Rushton, and him asking me what I thought of it, and then me saying, "This is interesting, and I don't know what to do with this right now," and, "This is a problem."
How'd you broach the subject to begin with?
After spending a little time together for a couple of weeks, I thought it was strange we hadn't talked about the elephant in the room. So I just started by asking, "Will you explain this to me?" I didn't even know what the arguments were, really, I just intuitively thought it was wrong, but I didn't have evidence it was wrong. But the most comforting part of the conversation, for me, was that his arguments were based on him thinking certain arguments were correct rather than just, "I think brown people are bad in my gut." That was not his perspective.
So because IQ can be thought of like a trait, in a similar way to personality, there’s an aspect of it that’s based on your genes and an aspect that’s based on your environment. People debate about the extent to which each matters, but no scientist would say it’s entirely one or the other. But whether or not that indicates there’s meaningful group differences is another—is a very different kind of question. And no one has shown that differences between our socially-defined racial groups can't be explained by environmental factors.
What was Derek's response to that—did he invoke The Bell Curve? And how did you respond?
That's a book that was published in the 90s. But we used more recent evidence for the most part. So I think there was a point in which I sent him a critique on The Bell Curve, and he agreed with the notion that we should go with more recent science. But part of it is that you can't just go around administering IQ tests to different countries and then expect that the test is appropriately culturally normed in every country.
There are a lot of components of intelligence. We can’t really compare IQ test results in the United States to IQ test results in less developed nations for a lot of reasons, because there's also a really huge overlap between the economic development of a country and their investment in education and the accompanying IQ scores. A white nationalist would say that because of their IQ scores, they're a less developed nation. But there's a lot of longitudinal data about causal trends that indicate once you invest more in the development of a nation, then IQ increases follow.
So why did you spend the most time on race and IQ? Just because it's the most multivariable, or because it's the most important?
It's the most multivariable. Crime and race is easier, because there's so much evidence behind black people getting harsher sentences for the same crimes. And that is hard to argue with. And so there's just more clear evidence behind bias in our justice system than there is for IQ stuff. That gets very statistical and murky, while crime stuff is just easier to debunk. So I would go through Jared Taylor's YouTube videos on this and write it up as, "At this timestamp he says this, and it's wrong because X."
How long did it take for Derek to cede some ground on the IQ stuff?
I think in his mind, he wanted to be someone who followed logic and reason. So if two percent of his argument wouldn't hold up to science, then fine, he just wouldn't use that. Then his arguments would be better. But you can only keep that up for so long until most of your arguments are gone. And it wasn't like we had one conversation and he'd say, "I think white nationalism is wrong." He would say, "I think yours is a reasonable interpretation." And it's not as simple as saying there's one study that shows—many people spend their entire careers just studying IQ, right? So there's a review article that's available online of 100 studies. But we wouldn't read the review article, we'd read each of these studies. It's not feasible for most people who don't have a ton of time on their hands to do that.
A lot of articles would get sent over email, and we'd take a few days. And then we'd discuss it out loud or ask, "What did you think of this?" And there were several ways that could play out. It could be about whether there are IQ differences in race, or whether race was a real biological construct. Or it could be on what the effects are of racism in society. So it was divided between why his arguments were wrong and why they were doing harm.
Lots of people say "race is a construct" without even knowing what that means. How do you explain something like that to a committed white nationalist?
Some people have ears that are more detached from their head, and some people have ears that are more attached to their head. And that's something we can observe in other people and it's not controlled by a single genetic allele but it's a physical characteristic that is rooted in our genetic code. But environments, like having worse nutrition, more exposure to toxins like lead, being less likely to be able to breastfeed, being more likely to live in a disadvantaged neighborhood, being more likely to experience infectious disease, and all of those matter. And then there’s the effect of being a minority in a country where that has really big ramifications for your health, which being adopted into a family with more resources is not going to fix.
However, if we did group those people who are separate and those who are attached and gave them all IQ tests, because of the nature of statistics, and the role of sample size, you're going to find a difference where one is going to be smarter than the other. Because the bigger the sample, the more likely you are to find small effects that are statistically significant even though they are so small in magnitude as to mean very little. And then if you make policy based on that, or promote one group at the expense of the other, like have different educational opportunities or housing differences for one versus the other, then these choices become socially relevant and they magnify what was a small or perceived difference into something propped up by social choices and structures that justify inequality. And that is very similar to something like race. That's an observable thing, but it's up to society to determine how much that means.
What's the white nationalist argument for that, and what's wrong with it?
So for IQ differences, one white nationalist argument is that IQ is meaningfully different between groups based on people's genetic makeup, and that group difference is meaningful to the point that you can never reconcile that other than by separating the races.
First of all, when someone hears the term heritability estimate, or how heritable something is, people assume that means that is how much their genes determine the outcome of that trait. And that's not true. That's not what it is statistically. There's a lot of research that shows why the black/white IQ gap is not due to genetic differences. So there's a lot of factors: prenatal nutrition, educational opportunities, racism both overt and covert in the US.
There's also stereotype threat, in which people might perform differently on a test depending on whether they're told it's an IQ test or simply a puzzle.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are studies in which you have a group of Asian females and you assign one to be primed by their Asian identity and another to be primed by their female identity. The ones primed by their Asian identities do better on a test, and those primed by their female identities do worse.
White nationalists like to use twin studies in their arguments. Did you guys talk about those?
They think that it's optimal science. And it's good science. But it has problems, like, you can't control for the prenatal environment. In arguments with Derek, [I pointed out] black children who are adopted into white families, compared to their siblings who are not, get IQ benefits by virtue of the fact that white adoptive families have a higher socioeconomic status. White nationalists point out that kids who are adopted into other families still have IQ scores that are correlated with their biological parents—that is because, like all things, there is some genetic contribution. But there’s a good meta-analysis, which is a mathematical review of all of the published studies, by a few researchers at Leiden University of over 17,000 adopted children that shows that adoption from a poorer family into a family with a higher socioeconomic status is associated with large gains in IQ compared to non-adopted siblings or peers.
There's really complicated evidence for how much genes pull for certain environments, but we know environment is crucial. And we know that there’s a big issue in this work where poverty and class is confounded with race. So for example, heritability estimates are lower for people in lower socioeconomic statuses, and they are higher for people in higher socioeconomic statuses. This makes sense if you think of like, a plant, and some get less sunlight than others and grow less high. And you can be like, Oh, this one is genetically inferior to this other one. But really it just had less sunlight or less-good soil. Or every once in a while, a rhino came in.
How big are the IQ difference to begin with?
The magnitude of these differences is relatively small. Just because something is statistically significant, or because you think one group is different than another not due to chance, that doesn't tell us how big or meaningful that difference is. Then there's the argument about brain size, but that doesn't work, because males and females have more difference in average brain size than racial groups, but men and women have the same average IQ scores. And black and white full-term babies also on average have identical brain size.
Another really big talking point in white nationalism is that more diverse societies produce worse outcomes. But there is really unparalleled good evidence at this point that more diverse teams and companies are more financially productive and have a better workplace. One of the reasons is that people are less comfortable, so they're going to be more careful and to research what they're doing. They're more likely to think through what they're saying and the choices that they're making. It's more cognitively taxing. You don't continue to make the same mistakes you once did.
I know that there were other things going on at New College at the time that influenced Derek's thinking—the fact that he was largely socially ostracized, and there was direct action taken at the school undoubtedly had an effect. But there's also something to be said for your willingness to engage. Lots of people would not have done that.
It wasn't like it was on the national platform like it is now. And the arguments I was having with Derek, while I knew that he was a bigger person in the world, it very much felt like 10 PM when we'd be brushing our teeth and I'd say, "Did you read that email I sent you. What did you think?" It felt more like kids having arguments in college than it did something that was playing out on the national stage. It didn't feel like it had so many implications. It was more like, "You're wrong. And the more evidence I read, the more sure I am that you're wrong. And I think that you're a really good person. So as long as you're not going to bow out of this conversation, I'm not going to bow out of this conversation."
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.